Four Indonesians file climate litigation: Holcim must take responsibility

Asmania, Arif, Bobby and Edi, four Indonesian fishermen and women filed a civil action on 30 January 2023 against Holcim Group at the Cantonal Court of Zug – where the headquarters of the cement corporation are located. Their home on the Indonesian island Pari is under existential threat from climate change and the rising sea levels which accompany it. Due to its high CO2 emissions, Holcim bears a significant share of the responsibility for this. Therefore, the four complainants are demanding from Holcim: proportional compensation for their climate-induced losses and damages, a contribution to adaptation measures, as well as rapid emission reductions. 

This is the first climate litigation in Switzerland, which individuals from the Global South have filed against a company – and globally, this is only the second complaint of its kind. The four Indonesians are claiming a violation of their personality rights (ZGB 28), resulting from past, ongoing and future excessive CO2 emissions on the part of Holcim, which have led and will lead to damages (OR 41) on the island. During the conciliation proceedings at the beginning of October 2022, Holcim did not concede to any of their demands. It will now be the task of the court to apply the law to the realities of the climate crisis. 

A retrospective look shows that, since its founding, Holcim has released 7 billion tons of CO2, which amounts to 0.42 percent of all global industrial CO2 emissions since the year 1750. That is more than double the amount of what Switzerland as a whole emitted during the same time. To date, Holcim emits up to three times as much CO2 annually as all of Switzerland.  

Insufficient climate targets

Looking ahead, it is also evident that Holcim’s future climate strategy is not compatible with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. As shown in an analysis published by HEKS, the climate targets of the corporation are insufficient and have come too late. This is because Holcim is merely focusing on relative emissions reductions by 2030, i.e. on reducing CO2 emissions per ton of CO2, rather than reducing its absolute CO2 emissions. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees requires an average absolute reduction of CO2 emissions worldwide of 43% by 2030 and 69% by 2040 in comparison to 2019 levels. 

This is precisely the emissions reduction that the Indonesian claimants are demanding from Holcim. Given Holcim’s historical responsibility for climate change and its economic capability, the corporation has an above-average responsibility to rapidly reduce its CO2 emissions. Only in this way can Holcim contribute to the prevention of devastating future climate damage. 

Controversial methods

It is not only the amount and the speed of Holcim’s CO2 reduction that are insufficient; the manner in which the company intends to achieve this has also come under criticism. Starting in 2030, Holcim plans to rely on CO2 capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies, among others, to achieve its net-zero target by 2050. Whether these technologies will be scientifically, technically und economically feasible on a large scale, however, is unknown. Additionally, the analysis of Holcim’s climate strategy shows that there are significant flaws within the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which assessed and validated Holcim’s climate targets. 

The SBTi is a multi-stakeholder initiative that supports companies in establishing climate targets. It claims to use methods that are in line with the latest climate science.  However, these methods only serve to confirm the status quo: in order to achieve the 1.5-degree limit, only a certain amount of CO2 can be emitted globally, and this remaining CO2 budget will be allocated in such a way that the largest emitters like Holcim, the so-called “Carbon Majors,” continue to be entitled to their high emissions. In addition, there are some governance problems associated with the initiative. The criticism of the SBTi ultimately fall back on the integrity of Holcim’s climate targets. 

Struggle for justice

For Asmania, Arif, Bobby and Edi, one thing is clear: Holcim has an above-average responsibility for climate change, which constitutes an existential threat to the home of the four Indonesians, even though they themselves have contributed virtually nothing to it. With their complaint against Holcim, they are fighting against this injustice. They are supported in their endeavors by WAHLI, the largest environmental network in Indonesia, HEKS, as well as the legal network ECCHR.